I like to describe Paul Verhoeven’s Hollywood output – films like Total Recall, Robocop, Showgirls – as ‘smart-dumb’ films: films that embrace the trappings of maximalist mainstream entertainment while injecting insidious satire beneath bombastic exteriors. Elle – Verhoeven’s first film since 2012’s largely-ignored Tricked – flips the script, using the format of a polite French melodrama to offer an entirely impolite twist on the rape-revenge-thriller model.
To synopsise Elle would risk spoiling its many surprises, so I’ll digress; but what makes the film so difficult to concisely describe is its persistent refusal to embrace binaries. The rape-revenge structure, after all, belongs to exploitation films that revel in the simplicity of good/bad, victim/villain dichotomies. Elle deftly sidesteps anything that could be regarded as conventional or moral, ruffling some feathers in the process (Verhoeven remains, now and forever, a provocateur).
While I was thoroughly engrossed by Elle’s unique approach to its subject matter, I remain uncertain as to whether it had anything in particular to say about rape, power and/or gender politics. Perhaps that’s the point – or perhaps I simply need to rewatch. That said, there’s no uncertainty around the quality of Isabelle Huppert’s lead performance, a magnificently arch portrayal that smooths over any thematic ambiguities.